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17 processed foods to avoid

Written by John Davis

Last updated: September 15, 2022

processed-foodsEating a diet heavy on processed foods is the quickest way to surrender good health and get sick, fat or both.

It only takes a few years for populations who adopt a Western diet based on processed foods to start coming down with Western illnesses.

What is processed food? If a food has been processed with chemicals, contains ingredients that have been refined, or has artificial flavors, colors, or other synthetic components, it’s processed food.

Part 1 ranks the worst processed foods you can eat, and part 2 shows why processed foods don’t keep our bodies healthy.

List of processed foods to avoid

We’ll take a look here at some processed foods that may be perceived as healthy, along with the reasons why they won’t help you achieve your goals.

1. Low-Fat Yogurt

Eating the right kind of yogurt can be a healthy choice, but low-fat yogurt isn’t the way to go.

Because much of the good flavor in dairy products comes from the fat, this discrepancy is usually corrected by plenty of added sugar. Furthermore, much of the good that comes from eating dairy products is because of their good fat content. When you take out all of the fat, you’re taking away many of the benefits of dairy.

If you’re worried about the fat content, choose dairy products from grass-fed cows. These tend to be higher in omega-3s, which are the good fats you want to eat.

Sometimes yogurt has been pasteurized after culturing, which wipes out the friendly bacteria. Look for full-fat yogurt with live cultures for probiotic benefits.

2. Processed Meat

Meats can be part of a healthy diet, but processed meats like sausage, pepperoni, and bacon are poor choices.

Eating processed meats raises the risk of developing chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes, colon cancer, and heart disease. (1, 2) This is for a few different reasons. Firstly, processed meats are often high in fats, which promote cancer formation and insulin resistance. Secondly, processed meats are often cooked at high temperatures, increasing the odds that they contain cancer-causing ingredients. Thirdly, the heme iron found in most meats can increase cancer formation even more.

While this information is based on observational studies, the association is strong; if you must have processed meats, try to find local sources with minimal additives. Of course, fresh meat is always a better option. Choose meats that are grass-fed to keep your consumption of omega-6s low.

3. Cookies, Pastries and Cakes

These foods are loaded with calories and have essentially no nutrients to deliver. While they’re certainly tasty, you’re not doing yourself any favors by including them in your diet. They contain very little nutritional value, which means you aren’t getting much when you do eat them.

The refined sugar, white flour, and trans fats commonly found in these treats not only add empty calories but they can also cause obesity and other health problems, like diabetes.

Imagine that you only have so many carbohydrates and calories to eat in a day. You do not want to spend them on foods that don’t provide your body with any nutrients. If you just cannot stop eating these foods, you may want to look into carb blockers.

4. White Bread

Made with refined wheat flour, white bread can also be categorized as empty calories, and will spike blood sugar just as effectively as a dose of table sugar. These spikes in blood sugar will make you feel groggy and cause you to get hungry shortly after you eat, which can cause you to consume more calories than you would otherwise. You want foods that are going to sustain you, not white bread. (3)

All the nutrients contained in whole wheat have already been sacrificed to grinding and processing, and even if you can tolerate gluten (the protein contained in wheat) there’s nothing to nourish your body in white bread.

Ezekiel bread or whole-grain bread has more to offer if you must eat bread. Remember to get most of your calories from veggies and fruits if possible, as these are extremely nutrient-dense.

5. Sugary Drinks

Most modern diets are rich in added sugar, which we all know is detrimental to health on many levels. But some sources of sugar are worse than others, and sweetened drinks are the worst.

The brain “gets it” when we eat sugar-rich foods because of the bulk, but sugary drinks have the opposite effect: the system doesn’t register the calories, and we end up consuming more. There is no “bulk” to a liquid, so they don’t feel you up at all. (4, 5, 6)

Excess sugar consumption causes insulin resistance and can lead to fatty liver disease, as well as increasing the risk of developing heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and other serious disorders including obesity. (7, 8, 9)

For these reasons, it is best to stay away from soda, juices, and other sugary drinks. Even things like Gatoraid are incredibly high in sugar, even if they are advertised as being “healthy”. When in doubt, water is your best option. You do not want to drink all your calories and miss out on the important nutrition that comes from other foods.

6. Ice Cream

Because it’s usually loaded with sugar, ice cream is also a poor nutritional choice. Eating it for dessert is even worse because you’re piling it on top of a meal, adding even more calories.

And everyone who loves ice cream knows how difficult it can be to eat the amount designated as a serving, which is usually a skimpy half-cup.

If you can’t live without ice cream, consider getting a small hand-crank freezer and making your own with less sugar or sucralose, or using a healthy alternative sweetener. There are some healthy ice cream alternatives out there as well. Next time you’re shopping, take a look at the ingredient lists and you may be pleasantly surprised by what you find!

7. French Fries and Potato Chips

This is probably no surprise: eating potato chips and French fries is associated with weight gain. (10, 11)

Always boil potatoes; baking, roasting, or frying causes acrylamides to form. These are carcinogenic substances and should be avoided. (12, 13)

Be creative and find other foods to satisfy your desire for something crunchy or crispy. Try nuts or baby carrots. Crunchy fruits like apples are always a great option. It is best to mix carb-heavy foods with protein, like nuts, to prevent blood sugar spikes.

8. Fruit Juices

Fruit juice is commonly mistaken for healthy food because it comes from fruit, which is very nutrient-dense.

The problem with juice is that it’s been separated from the natural fiber that slows down the assimilation of fructose (the sugar found in fruit). This means your body will absorb the sugar faster into your bloodstream. Drinking fruit juice slams your system with as much or more sugar as sweetened soft drinks. (14)

While fruit juices contain antioxidants and vitamins, benefits can be canceled out by the sugar content. Pomegranate or acai berry juices, for example, should be taken as a supplement, not consumed to quench thirst.

Of course, not all fruit juices are bad. Some are made with very little sugar. If you must consume fruit juice (or you have children who won’t go without), look for juices without any added sugar. That way, you’re only consuming the sugars that are naturally found within the fruit – not extra.

When in doubt, drink water. You can flavor water with fruits at home if you miss that sweet flavor.

9. Processed Cheese

Including cheese in your diet can be a smart choice, since it’s rich in vital nutrients, and a single serving delivers all the goodies you’d get in a full glass of milk.

Processed cheese is a different story. Filler ingredients are combined with small amounts of dairy derivatives and carefully engineered to taste, feel, and look like genuine cheese. It often doesn’t contain many nutrients and can be high in omega-6s and carbohydrates.

Invest in the real thing. If you love the taste of processed cheese, look for American cheese from companies like Boar’s Head. This cheese tastes similar to processed cheese, but it is made like real cheese. This means it nutrient-dense just like real cheese often is.

When in doubt, check the ingredient list. Real cheese will have a mixture of enzymes, milk products, and salt. Processed cheese will have a much longer list of ingredients and include things like gelatin and coloring agents. If they have to color their product to look like cheese, it isn’t real cheese.

10. Agave Nectar

This sweetener is presented as natural and healthy, but it’s actually a highly refined product with more fructose than either table sugar or high fructose corn syrup. (15)

Added fructose in the diet can be destructive to your health, although the fructose in fruit is not a problem. When you eat fruit, you are also getting plenty of other nutrients. The added nutrients off-set the sugars.

However, burdening the liver with the work of processing large amounts of fructose can raise the risk of developing various chronic disorders, like diabetes. (16)

Explore healthier options like erythritol and stevia. When choosing products, avoid those with added sugars, which will be listed on the nutrition label.

11. Pizza

This may be the most popular “junk food” choice in the world, probably because it tastes divine and is convenient and easy to eat.

But most commercial pizzas are made with refined flour and processed meats, neither of which are healthy choices. And the calorie count for a single slice of pizza is staggering.

Making your own pizza at home with quality ingredients is a good choice for an occasional treat, but eating fast-food pizza regularly is a bad idea.

With that said, some order-out pizzas aren’t that bad. Typically, traditional pizzerias will use real, quality ingredients in their pizzas. Some frozen pizzas are okay as well. Your best bet is to check the ingredient list.

12. Fast Food Meals

Most people realize making fast food a habit won’t help cultivate a healthy body, but it’s extremely popular partly because it’s tasty and cheap.

The trouble is, you’ll pay later with the cost of poor health. And if you feed it to your children, it may raise their risk of obesity and chronic disease. (17)

Don’t indulge in junk food that is mass-produced and highly engineered on a regular basis. When you need a quick bite to eat, choose a restaurant with high-quality food instead. Many local restaurants may provide fast options made with healthy ingredients. When in doubt, check the nutritional information of their food or just ask.

Either way, natural energy bars, protein bars,  and similar snacks are also a healthy alternative when you need a quick meal.

13. Industrially Produced Vegetable Oils

It’s only been the last hundred years or so that added oils in the diet have increased dramatically, pushing us into territory where humans have never gone in the past.

Refined vegetable oils like canola oil, corn oil, soybean oil, and cottonseed oil are high in omega-6 fatty acids, which have been linked with an increased risk of cancer, as well as creating higher levels of oxidative stress in the body. (18, 19, 20, 21)

Omega-6 fatty acids are “bad fats”. Instead, you want higher amounts of omega-3s, which are actually very healthy.

You’re better off using avocado oil, coconut oil, butter, and olive oil. It is important for us to point out that not all oils are bad. Those from animals and some plants are a healthy addition to a diet in moderation. However, most processed vegetable oils are not.

14. Candy Bars

What’s the harm in a candy bar? It tastes good, goes down quickly, and provides a nice shot of energy.

The sugar is the worst of it, but candy bars are often bulked up with refined wheat flour and other ingredients that are likely to make you want more, and end up eating a larger amount than you intended.

When the body metabolizes this type of high-sugar food, you’ll be hungry again in a flash. Your blood sugar will rise substantially as well. This gives you a nice bit of energy, but you will come crashing down shortly afterward.

Try some dark chocolate or eat a piece of fruit.

15. Margarine

Like processed cheese, margarine is an engineered food designed to look, taste, and feel like butter.

Usually made from highly refined vegetable oils, margarine’s solidity is often achieved through hydrogenation, which ups the trans fat content. Trans fats are toxic, and have no place in a healthy diet, even in small amounts.

Manufacturers can label products as “trans-fat-free” if a serving contains less than 0.5 grams of trans fats; with serving sizes designated as a teaspoon or some other unrealistic amount, this can add up fast.

Buy real butter.

16. Sweetened Coffee Drinks

People who drink coffee run a lower risk of certain chronic diseases, including type 2 diabetes and Parkinson’s disease. (22, 23)

Coffee is loaded with antioxidants and can make healthful contributions to your diet unless you add sugar or other sweeteners and creamers with artificial ingredients.

Try getting quality coffee and drinking it black. High-quality coffee often tastes good without any added sugars or creamers.

If you must lighten it, minimal amounts of cream or full-fat milk are the best choice.

17. Low-Carb Junk Foods

With the growing popularity of low-carb diets, manufacturers have flooded the market with low-carb treat foods like candy bars and replacement meals.

These junk foods won’t make an impact on the number of carbs you’re eating, but they contain little nutrition and plenty of artificial ingredients or chemicals.

Furthermore, carbohydrates aren’t really bad for you as long as you eat them in moderation. Skip the low-carb diet, and choose to get your carbohydrates from fruits and veggies whenever possible. When you eat like this, you’ll find yourself eating fewer carbohydrates and still staying satisfied.

Why processed foods are bad

Here’s why processed foods don’t keep our bodies healthy and happy:

1. Artificial Ingredients

Artificial ingredients are most often chemicals, plain and simple.

If you buy a granola bar, you might think oats and puffed rice, nuts, raisins, honey, and whatever else would be pretty healthy.

The problem lies in whatever else the manufacturer chose to include, like maybe guar gum, anhydrous milkfat, hydrolyzed gelatin, maltodextrin, or artificial flavors.

Artificial flavor is considered proprietary, and manufacturers don’t have to list ingredients for it, but you can bet it’s a chemical cocktail developed to yield that special flavor so that you’ll buy the product again.

Additives and chemicals serve specific purposes: imparting the desired color; preservation; creating a certain texture, etc.

All food additives are supposedly safe for consumption (1), but keep in mind personal opinions might differ from federal regulatory agencies. Some are considered “safe until proven otherwise”.

2. Plenty of Refined Carbs

Most processed foods are high in refined carbohydrates. While nutritional experts argue about whether or not copious quantities of carbs belong in a healthy diet, everybody seems to agree carbs are best taken from whole food sources.

Simple carbs like those in refined foods are broken down quickly in the digestive system, spiking blood sugar and insulin levels. Cravings hit a couple of hours up the road when the blood sugar roller coaster hits the low spot.

Consuming lots of refined carbs is associated with poor health, as well as a greater risk for developing chronic diseases. (2, 3, 4)

3. Low in Nutrients and Fiber

Processing destroys nutrients and pulverizes or removes the natural fiber content of whole foods.

Antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and trace nutrients of every imaginable variety are lost during the manufacturing of processed foods, and science doesn’t yet know what they all are, or what they do.

Whether or not they’ve been identified, these lost components result in gaps in your nutrition.  Even if foods have been “enriched,” or claim added vitamins and minerals, these are often synthetic or inferior versions of the real thing.

Both soluble fiber and fermentable fiber play important roles in digestion and nourishment.

Much of the fiber in whole foods isn’t digestible by our systems; this type of fiber feeds the friendly gut bacteria in the large intestine, which ferments and digests it to provide prebiotics necessary for good gut health. (5, 6)

Soluble fiber can also help prevent constipation. Cultivating the proper environment in our guts helps keeps us mentally sharp, cheerful and well. (7)

4. High Amounts of Sugar and High Fructose Corn Syrup

Processed foods are often highly sweetened, and manufacturers hit consumers’ sweet spots with white sugar or high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). These two affect the body in the same way: badly.

Everyone knows sugar provides empty calories, but it’s worse than that. Sugar devastates delicate metabolic processes (8) and lines you up for disorders like insulin sensitivity, high cholesterol, and elevated triglycerides. It also helps you tuck away plenty of abdominal fat. (9, 10)

Sugar in generous quantities is clearly associated with Western diseases like heart disease, cancer, diabetes, or at the very least, obesity. (11, 12, 13, 14, 15)

According to the USDA, the average American eats 156 pounds of sugar each year; less than 30 comes from the sugar bowl, may be added to coffee, tea, or cereal. Most come from processed food and drinks. (16)

5. Trans Fats and Vegetable Oils

Cheap fats allow food companies to make more money. Seed and vegetable oils commonly used to enhance flavor and texture like soybean oil have been hydrogenated, which makes them trans fats.

These oils are high in omega-6 fatty acids, which tend to oxidize and lead to inflammation. (17, 18)

Consuming these oils puts you at greater risk of developing heart disease, which is the number one killer worldwide. (19, 20, 21)

6. Hyper-Rewarding Food Experiences

In times past, taste buds steered us toward the food we needed to survive; rich fatty foods, salty foods and foods with natural sweetness helped us hone in on the necessary fuel and nutrient sources for daily activities.

Today, those same instincts are exploited by food manufacturers. The more we love eating it, the more likely we are to buy it again.

Costly evaluations and engineering operations are conducted by food giants in the fierce competition for business. The result is overly-rewarding culinary experiences that encourage us to overeat. (22, 23)

Biochemists who are very good at their jobs are being paid very well to create food products laced with substances that trip our pleasure-meters to the point where reason, logic, and common sense can no longer be accessed, and the eating just goes on and on.

7. Junk Food Addiction

Arising from hyper-rewards experienced when eating foods designed to hijack brain chemistry, addiction to junk foods is becoming more common. (24)

It doesn’t happen to everyone, but some people just cannot stop and eat the whole bag of chips or box of cookies. A half-gallon of ice cream is gone in a sitting.

Total loss of control with food is addictive behavior, and studies show sugar and some junk foods light up the same pleasure centers in the brain as cocaine. (25)

This prospect alone should be enough to scare some sense into most people.

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Recap: The take-home message is simple, processed foods pack on pounds and erode your health. Eat real food.


John Davis